Traffic (United States, 2000)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

During the Spring of 1990, I remember being transfixed in front of the television set for an hour each Sunday night over a period of five weeks. The occasion was the "Masterpiece Theater" presentation of the British mini-series "Traffik", a complex narrative that explored the lifecycle of heroin - from its origins as opium in the fields of poor Pakistani farmers to its distribution across Europe and its use on the streets of England. Powerfully scripted and flawlessly acted, "Traffik" remains to date one of the most memorable programs ever to air on the venerable PBS showcase of British drama. Now, more than a decade after "Traffik" was produced, American director Steven Soderbergh and screenwriter Stephen Gagen have chosen to re-invent the mini-series as a theatrical motion picture. The result is a thematically faithful (albeit truncated) version that retains much of the strength and impact of the original.

There are two major differences between "Traffik" and Traffic. The first involves location. Soderbergh has transposed events from Europe and Pakistan to the United States and Mexico, with the drug of choice being cocaine, not heroin. Secondly, one of the significant plotlines of the mini-series, the plight of a Pakistani farmer growing opium to provide for his family, has been excised in the interest of time. The other major storylines - two cops with uncertain loyalties, a high-ranking government agent with an addicted daughter, and a bored housewife forced by necessity to act as a drug lord - remain largely intact.

Unlike most ensemble movies, Traffic does not bring all of the characters together for a dramatic finale that ties the disparate plot threads together. In fact, for the most part, the different stories do not criss-cross, and, when an intersection occurs, it's an ephemeral one. The purpose of the movie is not to show how the characters interact or to illustrate some obscure point about fate and chance. Rather, it is to illuminate how far-reaching the drug trade is, and how trafficking in narcotics can impact on the lives of many different people in a variety of circumstances. Traffic looks at a wide sampling of aspects of the drug trade: the men who police it on both sides of the border, the government officials who carry out the so-called war, the people who get rich by distributing it, and the victims who debase themselves to get the money for their next fix. For some, drugs equate to greed, but, for others, they represent survival. Traffic's anti-drug message is not as in-your-face as the visceral one presented in Requiem for a Dream, but, at times, it comes close.

My single complaint about Traffic may sound like an odd one. In an era when motion pictures routinely last 15 to 20 minutes longer than they should, this one (even with a running time of nearly 2 1/2 hours) is too short. Another half-hour would have aided the film immeasurably, smoothing out transitions, adding helpful exposition, and providing stronger motivation for one character's personality transformation. It's clear that a great deal was edited out of Soderbergh's final cut, and, while the absence of this material doesn't render the storyline incoherent, there are occasions when the narrative becomes choppy. Traffic demands constant vigilance by audiences - even a brief bathroom break, especially if taken at an inappropriate time, might leave the viewer groping.

Although there are a large number of speaking parts, the action centers around four major characters. Benicio Del Toro turns in a nicely modulated performance as Javier Rodriguez, a Mexican police officer who is caught in a power struggle between two cartels. Rather than play one off against the other or sell insider information to U.S. DEA officials (who are willing to pay a lot for any reliable tip-off), Javier is content to take small payoffs, do his job, and stay alive. However, his partner has other ideas, and Javier is unwillingly pulled into a dangerous situation.

The biggest name in the cast is Michael Douglas, who plays Judge Robert Wakefield, the new U.S. Drug Czar whose personal life is thrown into turmoil when he learns that his daughter is an addict. For the second straight film (in the wake of Wonder Boys), Douglas shows his acting chops, giving a low-key performance that reminds us he is capable of doing more than smirking and offering glib one-liners. The standout in the cast is 18-year old Erika Christensen, who plays Caroline Wakefield, the judge's troubled offspring. Like Jennifer Connelly in Requiem for a Dream (although without the explicit nudity), her work here evokes a forceful acknowledgment of the wasteful and destructive power of drugs. Caroline is a bright girl - the third-ranked student in her junior class at an exclusive private high school - yet, once ensnared in the web of addiction, she becomes a thief and a prostitute to support her habit. Christensen is effective at capturing both the innocence and, later, the lost innocence of her character.

Finally, the new Mrs. Douglas, Catherine Zeta-Jones (who doesn't have a single scene with Douglas) is Helena Ayala, the wife of a San Diego drug lord. Helena is ignorant of her husband's activities until he is arrested and she is forced to clean up the debris of his collapsing business, as well as cope with threats to her life and the life of her son. Zeta-Jones gives a credible performance, but, of the four major players (her, Douglas, Christensen, and Del Toro), she is the least likely to be singled out for special notice.

To round out the large cast, Soderbergh recruited an exceptional group of actors. They include Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as a pair of American agents assigned to watch Helena; Miguel Ferrer as an informant; Amy Irving as Wakefield's wife, Barbara; Steven Bauer as Helena's husband, Carlos; Dennis Quaid as Carlos' business associate; and Jacob Vargas as Javier's partner. There are also cameos from the likes of Albert Finney, James Brolin, Benjamin Bratt, and Salma Hayek.

By employing different filters and techniques, Soderbergh gives each locale in the film a different flavor. Unlike Oliver Stone, who uses such visual flourishes to lubricate an ego trip, Soderbergh has a legitimate purpose here. His approach enables us, as viewers, to quickly figure out where we are and what set of characters we're dealing with in any given scene. The use of a cool blue tint tells us that we're in Cincinnati, probably with Lewis or his family. A normal, neutral photographic look hails from San Diego, where the plot centers on Helena, her husband's drug empire, and the cops watching her. Finally, a gritty, color desaturated appearance is used for Mexico. Combined with Soderbergh's penchant for hand-held cameras, the Mexico scenes bear a strong resemblance to some of Lars Von Trier's recent work.

The narrative pallet of Traffic is rich, tightly woven, and consistently involving, with characters that are as well developed as their necessarily limited screen time allows. In many ways, Traffic is not meant to be a complete story, although it has a beginning and an end. Instead, it offers a glimpse into the world of drug trafficking, giving a sense of the vast scope of the battles that must be waged for any war against drugs to be winnable. Without ever preaching, Traffic shows the folly of believing that facile slogans like "Just say no" mean anything when faced with the kind of real-life situations underlying every drug deal.

With Erin Brockvich and Traffic, Soderbergh has given movie-goers two good reasons not to entirely abandon theaters at a time when so much of the product argues for staying home and renting a video.

Traffic (United States, 2000)

Ranked #8 in Berardinelli's Top 10 of 2000
Run Time: 2:25
U.S. Release Date: 2000-12-25
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Drugs, Profanity, Sexual Situations, Nudity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1